What's a Virginia Rifle?

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This article attempts to address several questions that occur repeatedly in discussions about what is meant when a builder, collector, or kit seller uses the term "Virginia Rifle" to describe a style of longrifle.

It is an overview and makes no effort to identify the regional characteristics of the many rifles made in Virginia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What distinguishes a “Virginia rifle” from any other American made rifle from the same period?

Although we see the term “Virginia rifle” used widely by modern rifle builders and dealers, there is no single or even group of details that would define a style of rifle that spans so many different “schools” or regional styles. In parts of Virginia, just like in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Carolinas, rifles were an important part of the material culture. Rifles were often locally made and this lead to the evolution of regional styles that can sometimes be attributed to an area, a county, a town, or even a particular shop. This regionalism is not unique to rifles. Experts can identify local styles in nearly all hand crafted objects from furniture, to quilts, to pottery.  

Regional styles in firearms are not limited to America either.  Not too many years ago all Germanic rifles were lumped together by the average longrifle collector or builder as simply “Jaegers.” Now we know that there are many different regional styles there as well.

If we took the simple way out and just said that all rifles made in Virginia were “Virginia rifles” that would cover a huge geographical area. Unlike Pennsylvania, Maryland, and most of New England, whose western boundaries were established by their colonial charters, Virginia extended westward to include the territory that later became Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, etc.  (In the early 17th century the English claimed its boundary went west to the Pacific Ocean.) Until the Civil War it also included what is now West Virginia.

Evolution of the Counties of Virginia 1617-1995  (link to RootsWeb interactive maps--click on year to change map)

What did a rifle made in Virginia prior to 1750 look like?

The question about what a pre-1750 longrifle might look like goes WAY beyond Virginia. Documented American rifles made anywhere before 1760 are scarce and, if you toss out the ones with questionable documentation, signatures, or origin, they come down basically to a few parts found in archaeological sites, also sometimes of questionable, European or American, origin. Based on documents, we know that both short rifles and long rifles existed in the colonies prior to the 1740s but nailing down a few surviving examples would be a wonderful breakthrough in research.

Given the lack of pre-1750 examples, what does it mean when someone refers to a longrifle as “early?”

“Early” is another term that has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. An early Tennessee rifle is very different in period from an early Lancaster rifle. For the sake of simplicity I will stick to how the term is generally used in reference to the subject of Virginia made longrifles.

An early style rifle usually means one that pre-dates the “Golden Age” rifles but using that definition simply replaces the first question with, “What is a Golden Age rifle?” For the answer to that I refer you to page 31 in the third chapter of Joe Kindig’s book Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in Its Golden Age (1960).

Rifles actually made before the Revolutionary War are certainly early, not to mention scarce, and most will agree that the term also applies to those made during and immediately after the war. If you agree with me on that loose definition of the term, any rifle made prior to ca. 1780-85 is an “early rifle.”

But there is more to the definition of an early style rifle than the year in which it was made. The previously mentioned chapter in Mr. Kindig’s book addresses many of the characteristics that define an early rifle—wide flat butt pieces, tapered and flared barrels, etc. Chapter 20 in Volume II of George Shumway,s Rifles of Colonial America (1980) looks more closely at the evolution of the art on longrifles with an eye toward the shift from baroque to rococo design elements. Both the form of the rifle and the art on it are part of what a collector refers to when he refers to a rifle as “early.”

For a modern builder who aspires to produce an early rifle, Virginia or otherwise, there is one simple rule for dating objects to keep in mind: no rifle can be earlier than the latest detail of its construction or decoration. Examples— since “German silver” (a man made nickel-brass alloy) did not come into use until the end of the first quarter of the 19th century, a rifle with German silver mounts or inlays could not considered a historically correct 18th-century rifle. Likewise a Federal Eagle on an inlay or patch box dates the rifle to the mid-1780s or later. Those examples are simple and obvious. Learning to tell the difference between rococo and Neo-classical design elements requires more study but is every bit as important to doing historically correct work.

Since Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia during much of the colonial period, what was a rifle made there like?

On the question of Williamsburg rifles of the 18th century the answer is simple: there are no know examples. Tidewater Virginia was not really part of the “rifle culture” that grew up west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A few people in eastern Virginia owned rifles but they were probably imported from England or brought there from other regions.

In Williamsburg, there are some unfinished parts from the Geddy site that lets us know they were probably making pistols and fowlers. (The blank sideplate casting pattern they excavated could have been for a rifle.) There is documentation that the Geddy brothers were offering to rifle barrels in 1751 but that is a service and doesn’t prove they made new rifles.

The only known surviving civilian firearm signed by a Williamsburg gunsmith is a screw barrel pistol by John Brush. Brush came to Williamsburg in 1717 and died in 1726. The estate of Henry Bowcock, who died a few miles from Williamsburg in 1729, included “1 bird piece made by Brush.” That lets us know he also made fowlers. [See: The Gunsmith in Colonial Virginia by Harold B. Gill, Jr. 1974]

During the time when I was the Master of the Colonial Williamsburg Gunsmith Shop we made longrifles that represented those from towns many miles to the west and north—along the Great Wagon Road. When called on to produce something that might have been made in Tidewater Virginia we drew on details from English rifles or work believed to be from near Fredericksburg at the fall line of the Rappahannock River.

What is the difference between a “Valley rifle” and a “Shenandoah Valley rifle?”

The terms “Shenandoah Valley” and “Valley of Virginia” can be confusing because they may be used interchangeably for the entire valley between the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Appalachian Mountains on the west. (See the map below drawn by Karl Musser and displayed on Wikipedia.) If you drive south down the path of the Great Wagon Road, along modern Rt.11 and/or I-81, from Maryland past Winchester toward the Roanoke area you are in one continuous valley defined by those two mountain ranges.  That large geographic region is all called the “Valley of Virginia” but only the large northern part of the Valley, from just south of Staunton, is actually drained by the Shenandoah’s branches which flow north.  

A rifle made in Staunton by John Sheetz is technically a Shenandoah Valley rifle but one made by John Davidson in Rockbridge County is a Valley rifle or, more specifically, a James River Basin rifle.

What does it mean when a collector attributes an antique rifle to the “James River basin” area?

To a geologist or geographer the entire James River drainage can be called the James River basin. When collectors talk about rifle making in the James River “basin” they are referring to the south-central part of the Valley of Virginia where the streams drain east into the James River rather than north into the Shenandoah River.  At the “Forks of the James” the many branches of the upper James come together and pass through a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Glasgow, south of Lexington.

Where do so called Southwest Virginia rifles fit in the picture?

The crest of the Appalachian Mountain Range forms the eastern continental divide between waters flowing eastward into the Atlantic and those flowing down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. (In the Kings proclamation of 1763 he called the latter the “westward waters” and banned settlement there.)  Major eastward flowing waters in Virginia’s rifle making country include the Potomac, Shenandoah, James, and Roanoke Rivers. Between Roanoke and Blacksburg is the divide where waters in present day Virginia flow west, either by way of the New River drainage into the Ohio or, even farther west, down the Holston, Clinch and Powell Rivers into Tennessee.

In common usage the parts of Virginia beyond the continental divide are known as “Southwest Virginia.” The definition is far from exact and Roanoke County, which is east of the break, is often referred to as being in SW Virginia.

The rifles made in those Southwest Virginia counties include a number of distinct regional styles. So, just like the term “Valley rifles,” there is no set of details common to them all. That said, modern builders and collectors generally point out that iron mounts are more common on rifles from this western area than on rifles made in other parts of Virginia. True, however the answer is not that simple. There are surviving iron mounted rifles made from Staunton southward and brass mounted rifles made well beyond the divide.

The late flint and percussion rifles made in far SW Virginia often closely resemble those made in North Carolina and Tennessee. There is still research to be done to more clearly define those regional styles within the “over the mountain” regions and state lines may have much less to do with the results than mountain ridges and river valleys.